Jessica Dang tries a classic British afternoon tea on her own. The results are catastrophic.
By Jessica Dang
Dining alone is one of those activities that I’ve become accustomed to over the years and even grown to cherish. On Tuesday night, after doing a little after-work shopping in SoHo, I walked over to a neighborhood sushi spot in Nolita called Mottsu for a quick bite. It’s not exactly a temple to the artform of sushi, by any means. Their simple menu is affordable, with the occasional sprinkling of special delights such as ankimo (monkfish liver pate), botan ebi (spot prawn), and broiled miso black cod. It’s just the sort of place you’d pop into, on-the-fly, when you have a hankering for sushi and can’t seem to find a buddy to bite. I was in and out of there within half an hour. Going solo at a restaurant isn’t always such an effortless affair, though—a nerve-wracking lesson I learned five years ago when I decided to have afternoon tea by myself for the first time at The Wolseley in London.
I had spent the earlier portion of the afternoon strolling around Mayfair, gallery-hopping and wandering in and out of the plethora of luxury shops and boutiques along Bond Street. By 4 p.m., my feet cried out for a rest and my tummy was grumbling, so I thought to myself how lovely it would be to have a relaxing afternoon tea at The Wolseley, a gorgeous, bustling restaurant done in the grand European cafe tradition, which, luckily for me, was conveniently planted right next to the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly. I floated in, marveled at the high vaulted ceilings, and requested a table for one. Sigh! I’m having afternoon tea in London! Sometimes the idea of dining alone in a foreign city can hold such poetic notions that I start to imagine a sweeping soundtrack to accompany the experience.
The jacketed host escorted me into one of the salons, a smaller room located in the front of the restaurant. I looked around at the little cafe tables that lined the wall. There were pairs and clusters of people around each one, chitter-chattering away. The only empty table was smack dab in the middle of the room. That sweeping soundtrack came to a screeching halt. Everything shifted to slow motion as I walked across the room. It felt like there were dozens of eyes peering at me over their raised teacups. Awkwardly, I squeezed through the party at the table next to me and settled in, booth-side.
“Madam, would you like a newspaper or magazine?”
Oh, shit. Why did I say “newspaper”? I meant “magazine”! Wait! Wait, sir! Dammit.
The host returned with a variety of newspapers in hand and asked which one I preferred: The Times, The Evening Standard, The Independent, The Guardian or The Financial Times. A circus monkey could’ve picked one for me for all I cared because I hadn’t heard of most of those titles. So, I chose the one I actually recognized: “The Financial Times, please.”
He pulled out the FT from the stack in his arm, which stood out from the rest with its distinctive pale pink pages. It was the thickest issue that I had ever recalled. I tried to concentrate on the front page headlines, but all I could think about was how in the world I was supposed to open up the newspaper. Why, oh, why didn’t I choose a newspaper done in a tabloid format? At least I could’ve turned the pages, book-style. I pretended that I was still reading the front page until the waiter left with my order for afternoon tea service.
I decided to attack the situation methodologically like surgeon. First, let’s separate the sections. Nurse! Scalpel, please! Ok, now let’s fold the section length-wise and then continue to fold after each column is read. Breathe, breathe; gentle, gentle. I might as well have been setting up a camping tent for a family of four—the large, cumbersome pages were rustling up a storm. I gave up, laid the messy pile beside me, and started reading previously opened emails on my BlackBerry. It’ll be all better when the tea comes—or so I thought.
A parade of waiters made a beeline toward my table and arranged the afternoon tea service with pomp and circumstance: a silver tiered tray filled with scones, petit fours, and finger sandwiches; little porcelain jars of jams and clotted cream with tiny silver spoon handles poking out of them; a sugar bowl, creamer, teapot, teacup and saucer, and a tea strainer with its own holder. All I needed to draw even more attention were sparklers coming out of the scones, and having one of the waiters slap a sombrero onto my head. After everything was laid out—tock, tock, tock!—they vanished without so much as a workshop, seminar or instruction booklet on what I was supposed to do next.
Is the tea already steeped or do I wait? How long is Earl Grey supposed to steep for anyway? I poured the tea into my cup. Crap—forgot to put the strainer on! A flurry of tea leaves swirled around at the bottom. I dropped in two lumps of brown sugar and added a thin stream of milk. I remembered reading somewhere that one is never supposed to stir the tea, but rather “fold” the milk and sugar into the tea with a spoon.
I stared at the three-tiered tray as I was “folding” my tea. Where do I start? Is there an order? Do I go top-down, bottom-up, or, should I walk on the wild side and go at it randomly? To me, it made sense to start with savories and end with sweets, but then why are the sandwiches at the bottom and the sweets in the middle? I went with my instinct and started nibbling on the fluffy finger sandwiches. They were so dainty that it almost felt barbaric to be eating with my bare hands.
The warm, golden scones were perfectly done, almost cartoonishly perfect. I plucked one off of the top tier and sliced it cross-wise.(I later found out through Google that some purists have written that scones are supposed to be broken off into pieces and not sliced, but, whatever!) What next? Does the clotted cream come before or after the strawberry jam? Typically, if I were eating toast with butter and jam, I’d put the butter on first—which I naturally associated with the clotted cream—but, when I observed another woman eating a scone, she spread the jam on first and then spooned a dollop of the clotted cream on top.
I had to stop with my Woody Allen-esque neuroses and try to be leisurely about the whole experience—or, be in my own world, so to speak—so I had my Marie-Papier journal and a pen handy to jot down ideas, random thoughts, and notes in between tier-transitions and sips of tea. When I looked up, I noticed that the group next to me had left and another singleton was seated in their place. She was wearing sporty hiking clothes and carried a backpack. Clearly a tourist, I thought.
“Hi, excuse me,” she said to me in a hushed tone, “Have you ever had afternoon tea before? This is my first time.”